People & Culture

Setting the story straight

Indigenous journalists are creating spaces to investigate the crimes committed at Indian residential schools, grappling with unresolved histories and a reckoning that still has a long way to go

  • Published Jan 06, 2023
  • Updated Jun 20
  • 2,547 words
  • 11 minutes
[ Disponible en français ]
Dresses hung on crosses along a roadside honour the children who died at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. It was announced in July 2021 that 215 probable graves had been found on the grounds of the former school. (Photo: Amber Bracken)
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Content warning: This article includes information about residential school experiences and violence against children

It is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.”
— Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, in the book Canada and Its Provinces, 1914.

It is because you do not feel, or know the value of education; you would not give up your idle roving habits, to enable your children to receive instruction. Therefore you remain poor, ignorant and miserable. It is found you cannot govern yourselves. And if left to be guided by your own judgement, you will never be better off than you are at the present; and your children will ever remain in ignorance. It has therefore been determined, that your children shall be sent to Schools, where they will forget their Indian habits and be instructed in all the necessary arts of civilized life, and become one with your white brethren.” — Indian Affairs Superintendent P.G. Anderson, in 1846, at the General Council of Indian Chiefs and Principal Men in Orillia, Ont. The first federally run residential schools opened two years later in Alderville, Ont. 

A major moment happened last summer with the historic visit of Pope Francis to Maskwacis and Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, both located near sites of former residential schools run by the Catholic Church. For the first time, the international media that arrived to cover the papal apology were joined by a significant corps of Indigenous journalists, there to report on the “pilgrimage,” provide their own analyses and tell their own stories. 

A lack of Indigenous representation in journalism has meant that, until recently, few people with lived experience were telling stories about the lives in First Nations, Métis and Inuit territories. It was common to read, watch or listen to stories about Indigenous people but rare to consume media actually created by them. Indigenous storytelling is not new. What is new is the number and prominence of journalists successfully reclaiming the narrative. 

The confirmation in May 2021 of the remains of 215 children in unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia marked a turning point. The land we call Canada is a crime scene. In the weeks and months that followed, thousands more possible burial sites at former school sites were revealed: 104 potential graves at Brandon Indian Residential School in Manitoba, 751 at Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, 182 at Kootenay Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The list goes on and on and on. While the discoveries of unmarked burials may have come as a surprise to settlers, survivors and Indigenous communities have long known about the high death rates in the schools.  

And yet, the litany of abuses suffered by Indigenous children at these schools has been part of the public record for well over a century. In 1907, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce, chief medical officer for the Department of Indian Affairs, wrote a scathing report on the conditions in residential schools. It was distributed to members of Parliament and the churches that administered many of the institutions. The findings even appeared on the front page of the Evening Citizen (the precursor to the Ottawa Citizen). In it, Bryce revealed the “absolute inattention to the bare necessities of health” in the Indian Residential Schools. In 1922, he followed up with The Story of a National Crime: An Appeal for Justice to the Indians of Canada, a book that detailed the government’s role in creating and maintaining conditions that led to massive numbers of student deaths. In the schools, a “trail of disease and death has gone almost unchecked by any serious efforts on the part of the Department of Indian Affairs,” Bryce wrote in an indictment of the inaction of a succession of federal governments.

Survivors have reported horrifying stories of abuse and neglect — from ghastly tales of babies thrown into incinerators to court cases parsing the uses of an electric chair at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Ontario. In the latter case, federal government lawyers fought compensation claims by survivors for suffering caused by the electric chair. It wasn’t until late 2015 when the government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered an end to the argument. “Our government believes the actions described are absolutely forms of abuse — to argue otherwise is simply wrong,” said then Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett’s office in a statement.

Though there have been many print, television and radio reports about the horrors of residential schools, a number of the Indigenous journalists reclaiming the narrative are finding podcasting a particularly impactful way to share knowledge. Enter Duncan McCue and Connie Walker, two veteran Indigenous journalists whose recently released podcasts combine compelling storytelling with skilled investigative reporting.

Duncan McCue on Penelakut Island. McCue’s podcast, Kuper Island, reveals the dark history of the notorious Kuper Island Indian Residential School. (Photo: Evan Aagaard)
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When Duncan McCue first approached the Penelakut First Nation’s leadership about creating a podcast about the notorious Kuper Island Indian Residential School on Penelakut Island in B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands, the initial answer was no, and McCue understood why.

Records collected by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation confirm that 121 students died at the school, which was founded by the Catholic Church and funded by the Department of Indian Affairs. But the nation, which was one of the first to use ground-penetrating radar, announced in July 2021 that investigators had found more than 160 undocumented and unmarked graves.

Podcast artwork by Coast Salish artist Eliot White-Hill. (Image: Eliot White-Hill)
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“I have been covering residential schools for over 20 years, and there have been moments during the release of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] report, during the gatherings — but last summer [2021] was particularly raw for a lot of people. So to be reaching out and asking Elders to tell their stories yet again — I approached that with some hesitation,” says McCue, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation in southern Ontario,  whois best known as a broadcast journalist at CBC. 

He had previously reported extensively on residential schools in British Columbia and had heard a lot of awful things about Kuper Island. With that being the case, McCue was clear that he didn’t want his research phase to bring up old wounds for people and then not be used. “I wanted to make sure I honoured people’s stories, while keeping the podcast in mind,” says McCue.

Once he explained his goals with the podcast, he was given the go ahead. The result is Kuper Island, an eight-part series on the B.C. school with such a notorious reputation that survivors dubbed it “Alcatraz” after the San Francisco prison that was also surrounded by water and impossible to escape.

The series has received accolades and huge listenership. “The reason podcasting has taken off is that there is an authenticity that is sometimes missing in broadcast radio,” says McCue, who uses a serialized format to delve into the abuses at Kuper Island Indian Residential School. “People expect that it will be a bit unvarnished and raw.”

The episode-by-episode approach is now considered a classic of true crime in the podcasting world and allows McCue, as narrator, to move listeners through an increasingly complex story.

He delves into intimate details of residential school survivors’ experiences — including the physical and sexual abuse they faced at Kuper Island, the troubling death of one student just days before he was due to graduate and the ongoing quest for justice. After speaking with a number of survivors, McCue uses their recollections, as well as archival research, to track down a former staff member who witnessed the horrors first-hand, as well as one of the abusers.

The cruelties McCue exposes are recent history — the school didn’t close until 1975.

Kuper Island Indian Residential School in 1947. (Photo: Vancouver Province, a division of Post Media Network inc.)
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Students at the school. (Photo: Deschatelets-NDC Archives)
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Paths to reconciliation

Mapping unmarked burial sites

The news of the identification of 215 unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School sent shock waves across the country and the globe — but Survivors have been telling the stories of these precious missing children for decades. This map seeks to share the truths of missing children and unmarked burial sites guided by Survivors, families and communities — some of which were recovered well before 2021 and many others that are still active investigations. 

Connie Walker. (Photo: courtesy Connie Walker)
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Connie Walker, who, growing up, did not have a close relationship with her father, was shocked in 2021 when her brother Hal posted a story on Facebook about how their father, who had been an RCMP officer, once pulled over a priest who had abused him as a child. He wrote the post in the wake of the confirmation at Kamloops Indian Residential School of the existence of hundreds of unmarked graves.

Walker took that post and made it the basis for the powerful and personal podcast Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s. A member of Okanese First Nation, east of Regina, Walker uses her platform to delve into the story of her late father’s experience of abuse as a child at St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. The podcast sees Walker, known for the previous CBC Missing & Murdered podcast series spotlighting unsolved crimes against Indigenous women, launch a quest of her own to find the priest who harmed her father and seek the truth about what happened to him. Over the course of her investigation, she focuses on how we’ve heard so much about the brutal experiences of survivors of residential schools — and why there has been so little effort to bring those who carried out that abuse to account. 

When Walker reached out to Hal to learn the background to his Facebook post, he told her more details about how their father, Howard Cameron, was on a patrol in Saskatchewan one night in the late ’70s when he pulled over the priest who had abused him at St. Michael’s when he was a boy. As the podcast opens, Walker describes what happened next based on what her father shared with her brother. “For a moment, neither of them moved. Then my dad opened the door, grabbed the man by his collar and dragged him out of the car. He hit him again and again, until he was tired and out of breath. My dad walked back to his patrol car, and drove off into the night, leaving the man crumpled on the side of the road.

St. Michael's Indian Residential School, which remained open until 1996. (Photo: Deschatelets-NDC Archives)
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“There were no witnesses. The only people who knew what really happened were the two men who were there. But this is how I imagine the story. It’s a story that my father told that was later told to me. Hearing it has changed the way I think about my life, because the man who my dad beat up that night was a priest. A priest who abused him in residential school.”

Walker has lived away from Saskatchewan for more than 20 years, but says that returning always feels like home. A road in Saskatchewan is named for her sister, who was also in law enforcement.

In contrast to McCue’s investigation, which happens in a Nation that is not his own, Walker’s is deeply personal. Walker has a large family, and Surviving St. Michael’s includes her interviews with siblings, aunts and uncles. “I’ve been a journalist for 20 years and I’ve done a lot of reporting on residential schools. I probably had an intellectual understanding of why that was, but it was a completely different experience to then apply that to my personal life and to my dad and to my family,” she says.

Podcast artwork by Catherine Blackburn and Jose Romussi. (Image: Catherine Blackburn and Jose Romussi)
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Trying to find out as much as she could about her father’s experience became a way for Walker to process their relationship and better understand him. “Because I have these tools as an investigative journalist and because I have been working in podcasting for so long, I have seen how powerful it has been for people to share their stories and to be given agency in the telling of their stories,” she says.

The podcast format, with multiple episodes, also gave her the flexibility to dive deeply into the story and provide the context essential to understanding the complexity of Canada’s history of residential schools. She notes that she wasn’t taught the true history of residential schools as part of her public education, nor did she learn about colonization.

She uses her platform to investigate abuses at St. Michael’s while also shining a light on the bigger picture of the struggle to access records from the Catholic Church for all the schools it operated. The podcast follows Walker as she tries to figure out the name of the priest her dad pulled over, looking into the histories of alleged abusers at the school. In the course of her research, she and her team spoke to 28 survivors. “I gave the microphone over to them to tell their stories and amplify their voices. And they told us a lot of the names of the people who were abusive at the school.”

But justice is hard to come by. In September 2022, a few weeks before the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, an Inuit delegation headed to France to lobby for the extradition of a former Nunavut-based priest, Johannes Rivoire, who was accused of sexual abuse. The survivors and their supporters were told that the French government could not extradite the ex-priest because it would violate France’s constitution to do so. They did get a chance to speak to the man they accused of sexual abuse — an act of immense courage.

Walker's father, Howard Cameron, in his RCMP uniform. (Photo: Deschatelets-NDC Archives)
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Meanwhile, the search for the children continues. Ground- penetrating radar remains a major hope in the pursuit of answers. Slowly but surely, investigators are uncovering the stories of the thou- sands of children who never made it home. But the work is slow. “It is painstaking work, and it takes a trained eye to tell the difference between a tree root and a grave shaft. Not everyone can do it,” says McCue.

And despite the discoveries of the burial sites and the testimony of survivors, Indigenous journalists still face backlash when they uncover stories about abuses at residential schools.

“I think there are, unfortunately, a lot of Canadians who don’t want to hear this history because it implicates all Canadians,” says McCue. “The reason it was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is because the truth was actively obscured for a long time.”

As a country, we are left to reckon with these moral debts — to bear witness to the stories of Indigenous people and to repair, in as much as it is possible, the utter devastation visited upon each Indigenous family and community. Indigenous Elders recall that the spirit of the treaties was peace and friendship, of a declaration of kinship and a relationship that will last as long as the green grass grows and the water flows.

But as hundreds of active investigations reveal unmarked burial sites across the country, we, settler and Indigenous alike, are left wondering how to confront these dark chapters of history. How we move from guilt to hope, from inaction to action, from blame to solutions that allow us to imagine a path forward. 


This story is from the January/February 2023 Issue

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